"On the fair green hills of Rio / There grows a fearful stain / The poor who come to Rio / And can't go home again." So wrote Elizabeth Bishop, although a visitor to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, is just as likely to find something eerily beautiful in the apparition of the favelas, or slums, that litter the hillsides around the city. From a distance, at least, and at night, their disordered plenitude of lights has a fairy-like effect.
Fernando Meirelles' City of God, the latest Latin American film to take on the slums, is a semi-fictional account of a decade of gang life in the Cidade de Deus housing project, which sits on the backside of one of these hills. Narrated by a gentle misfit named Rocket, a boy from the project who wants only the safety and space to cultivate his interest in photography, the film at times recalls Victor Gaviria's 1990 film Rodrigo D: No Futuro. The slums in that film were Colombian (the city was Medellin) but the hillsides were just as merciless, and Gaviria's Rodrigo, like the wistful Rocket, wandered across them as a lone integer of human sensibility, an apprentice drummer with two sticks but no kit, paddling the air and watching his friends get shot.
Rodrigo D was downbeat and random feeling, rejecting the consolations of plot as if life in the slums were just too contingent, and death too capriciously grasping, to allow them. City of God more confidently flourishes its narrative artistry in your face, freeze-framing and flashing back like a Scorsese picture (Goodfellas or Casino) with additional neurological tics. Meirelles is a director of commercials in his native Brazil (City of God is his second feature), and there's something to be said about the kind of films made by such folk. Manic, sensational, directed with a slightly appalling facility, they always seem to be pushing something. A career spent thrusting tickle feathers into the gorge of public taste leaves its mark, and the stink of the sell can be hard to shake.
City of God uses a furious arsenal of ad-like tricks and techniques to grab and hold your attention. The camera zooms, leers, lurches, dawdles and almost dissolves into a series of intensely filtered backgrounds. We see things through the eye of a panicking chicken, the nose of a flying bullet, from space and peeling back through linear time -- hen's eye, bullet's eye, God's eye and ghost's eye, respectively.
Anyone who saw Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's 2000 film Amores Perros, a tale of dog fighting in Mexico City, will already know how City of God feels. Both films are daintily plotted, full of narrative loops and interstices, and yet both contrive, beneath their layers of writerly lace, to be snorting with proletarian energy. But if Amores Perros is its immediate antecedent, City of God's more distant and formidable forebear is Hector Babenco's Pixote, made in 1981.
Pixote, the story of a slum urchin who escapes from juvenile detention and onto the streets of Rio, finding a fleeting sense of family with transvestites, prostitutes and corrupted minors, is a social testament, a grand, Dickensian work of denunciation. The polemic is naked and Victorian in style: Babenco himself introduces the film, rattling off statistics and points of law and assuring his audience that the actors are authentic members of the underclass. What follows is like Charlie Chaplin's The Kid as directed by Ken Loach, a bitterly realist tract ventilated by operatic blasts of emotion. Little Pixote trots wide-eyed through gang rapes and drug hustles, pinching a handbag here and there, relying on whoever happens to be at his side. There is no future and there is no back story.
But whereas Pixote is a work of conscience, dense with anger, City of God is too intoxicated with the vitality of slum life to be pining for social hygiene. The villain is not the system, the bent cops and bad laws and crooked caseworkers of Pixote, but simple malevolence as embodied by the local drug lord Li'l Zé. Called Li'l Dice as a child, the grown-up Li'l Zé goes about his business in a slack-mouthed gargle of laughter, whimsically discharging his pistol into the bodies of rivals and subordinates until, by virtue of insanity (and a small measure of petty business sense), he comes to rule the favela.
Only one (already notorious) scene in City of God approaches the distressing power of Pixote. Irritated by a rowdy band of local starvelings calling themselves the Runts, Li'l Zé corners two of these boys (neither is more than 10 years old) and exacts punishment. After shooting them in the feet, he hands his gun over to one of his shrimpy pre-teen sidekicks, telling him that he can make his bones by killing a Runt, it doesn't matter which. The boy's face lengthens, the gun wobbles in his hand and the Runts begin to keen in misery. The anguish of children is always total -- less unlucky boys have made sounds like these when roused too abruptly from a nap -- and always totally affecting. What ratchets up the pain level here is the sudden collapse into childishness. Threatened with extinction, these hard, grimy little boys are -- for once -- acting their age.
Despite a happy ending for Rocket, City of God concludes with the Runts triumphant and fully armed, crowing over their new weapons and gleefully planning the next wave of murders. The film takes place in a world in which guns and drugs are not a sideline or a bad choice -- as they are for, say, the New Yorkers of Spike Lee's 25th Hour -- they are life itself. But the wastage of body and spirit that such a world endures was more intimately investigated in Barbet Schroeder's 2000 film Our Lady of the Assassins. Shot on resolutely unsexy, high-definition video, Our Lady centers on the exotic and weary personage of Fernando, a Colombian writer. If Rodrigo D connects the despair of Pablo Escobar's Colombia to a punk-rock vacancy, Our Lady is flavored with a more ornate, literary fatalism.
Fernando has seen it all, he has come home only "to die," but he's a sucker for the street boys of Medellin, for the smooth-faced, amber-eyed teenage hit men who come home with him and sleep like babies in his neurotically churned sheets. First there is Alexis, then there is Wilmar -- equally beautiful, equally doomed. The hills these boys come from -- La Francia, Santo Domingo Savio -- ring the city's basin and rise into the low clouds like their own little calvaries, each warring with its neighbor. To quote Elizabeth Bishop once more: "There's the hill of Kerosene / The hill of the Skeleton / The hill of Astonishment / And the hill of Babylon."
Fernando may be a human washout, but as an artist he is still on duty, policing the universe with a stringent eye. He spends his days railing superbly against too-small napkins in restaurants, too-loud radios in cabs and people who whistle. "They are stealing the sacred language of the birds!" he declares. "I'm a firm defender of animal rights." Fernando's trigger-happy consorts, meanwhile, are only too happy to take his peeves literally: Alexis obligingly executes a noisy neighbor while Wilmar dispatches an overconfident whistler. It's no trouble: "Para morir nacimos," as one young sage puts it. Translation: "We were born to die."